Shifting gears: Pandemic impetus for career change for some

Published in the Asheville Citizen-Times, September 13, 2020


ASHEVILLE – Call it a COVID kick in the pants.

As the COVID-19 pandemic lingers, plenty of Americans are reassessing career choices, and in many cases opting to shift gears and change careers, including quite a few locals.

In the Asheville area, a lot of workers had to reconsider careers, as unemployment spiked at 17.5% in April for Buncombe County. The Asheville metro area (Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson and Madison counties) lost an astounding 36,400 jobs, including 18,700 in the "leisure and hospitality" category, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics figures.

This situation is improving — that metro unemployment rate dropped to 9.2% in July, according to state figures, and local economist Tom Tveidt said the metro region regained about 11,500 of those hospitality jobs. But plenty of people are still considering career changes.

From bartending to HVAC

Jason Fyle, who's made a comfortable living for the past six years working as a bartender at an upscale downtown restaurant, is one of those making a move. He's not complaining about his job mixing cocktails and serving craft beers at one of the city's nicer dining establishments.

"I bought a home doing it," Fyle said. "It's been a pretty good job to have living in a city like Asheville." 

But when COVID-19 hit in March, followed by a state-mandated shutdown of many businesses, including restaurants, Fyle, 34, said he didn't work for almost four months.

He had plenty of company, and for many, the lack of work has continued. The Mountain Area Workforce Development Board, part of Land of Sky Regional Council, reported that as of July 2020, the region has 20,200 fewer jobs and 22,433 fewer people working, compared to July 2019 (The Mountain Area Workforce Development Board region comprises Buncombe, Henderson, Madison and Transylvania counties).

The trend is improving. "Compared to the previous month of June 2020, 1,100 more jobs and 5,207 more people are working," the board reported, noting the total labor force was 195,175.

Still, the economy is hurting, and our region has the "fourth-highest unemployment rate in North Carolina, with 19,886 unemployed individuals as of July 2020," according to Nathan Ramsey, executive director of Land of Sky Regional Council and director of the Mountain Area Workforce Development Board.

"Although our jobless rate has declined significantly from the spring, our current unemployment rate is close to the peak rate we experienced during the Great Recession," Ramsey said. "We are seeing some individuals consider a career change as a result of their job being eliminated either temporarily or permanently due to COVID-19." 

Plenty of jobs

The good news is jobs are out there. 

"Despite the high unemployment rate, we have thousands of job openings in manufacturing, healthcare, construction, tech, and even hospitality & tourism," Ramsey said. "And despite the large number of layoffs in the hospitality & tourism sector, there are still a good number of hotels and restaurants who are still hiring."

Fyle was able to go back to his job and plans to keep working while going to school, but the pandemic brought him some career clarity.   

"I was able to receive unemployment benefits, and that kept me afloat," Fyle said. "But while I was out of work, I decided the best thing for me to do, so this never happens again, was to find a job in a field that was essential. So, I decided the HVAC program at A-B Tech was the route I wanted to go down."

Ironically, owning a home, which can be out of reach for a lot of Asheville workers, played a key role in Fyle choosing the Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning program at A-B Tech. Fyle, who grew up working on cars and has a good head for mechanical work, had some "trials and tribulations" with his home's HVAC system, and realized how vital it would be to know how to fix such problems.

Also, while the pay in bartending and as a bar manager has been solid — $50,000-$60,000 a year — Fyle, 34, said he's never had a hospitality job with full benefits, and he can always count on working nights and weekends. Eventually, Fyle, who's single and has no kids, would like to marry and have children, so he'll need "the financial stability and a work schedule that works for them."

A lot of skilled blue-collar jobs pay well above $50,000 a year, once training is complete, with some workers pulling down salaries in the six-figure range. And companies cannot find enough of these workers.

"We are seeing broad-based demand for workers in the Asheville metro across many sectors, including manufacturing, distribution and logistics, and healthcare," Ramsey said Sept. 3. "Over the last few days I’ve had conversations with manufacturing employers who have between 20–70-plus current job openings. These jobs pay a 'living wage' or above, based on the Just Economics metric."

Helping people start and restart careers

One issue of concern is that our workforce does not match up well to the skills employers need.

That's where community colleges, such as A-B Tech come in.

"Our mission hasn’t really changed with COVID — we help people get started with a career or restarted with a career," said A-B Tech President John Gossett. "Some students are changing careers. That really is an awful lot of what our adult students do. COVID, though, really brought that to the forefront of people's thinking."

Typically, community colleges see enrollment upticks during recessions, and COVID most likely created one. But A-B Tech hasn't seen a surge in enrollment yet, as some college presidents expect.

But this is also a "medical recession," Gossett says, not a strictly economic one, so we're all figuring out what that means. Gossett said it's not hard to find students thinking differently about careers because of the pandemic.

"I was over in our barber school a couple of weeks ago, welcoming students back, and one of the students said, 'We’re in a career that cannot be mechanized,'" Gossett said. "And they're right. People are being much more thoughtful, and they're thinking about, 'What jobs are not going to be outsourced? What jobs are not going to be automated?'"

A-B Tech has a nationally renowned culinary program, and Gossett expects it to weather the current economic downturn, despite the turmoil in the restaurant industry now. They just recruited a new chef from California, and he said one of the draws was the program's national reputation.

"People are going back to restaurants, and there are still going to be jobs there," Gossett said. "Our reputation in the hospitality and culinary worlds will help us weather the storm. By the time our entering students graduate, I think we'll be closer to 'normal,' whatever 'normal' is going to look like."

Businesses have been telling A-B Tech for years they need machinists, welders and skilled workers for other hands-on, good-paying jobs, Gossett said, echoing Ramsey's sentiments about better matching the workforce to available jobs. High-tech manufacturing and health care also have strong demand.

That jibes with what Tim Mathis, regional operations director with the N.C. Division of Workforce Solutions, sees.

"Currently the major type of job postings and listings we are seeing in the Asheville center are manufacturing related, as well as Allied Health career opportunities," Mathis said. "It seems that Hospitality and Tourism was probably hit the hardest due to COVID, especially in our region since we have so many businesses based in that sector."

Restaurants, galleries and tourists draws like the Biltmore Estate were forced to temporarily close, and while most have reopened, some had layoffs. Biltmore announced in July it was laying off about 400 workers, reducing its workforce from 2,600.

Businesses that hunkered down are re-emerging, though, Mathis said.

"In many cases, employers are telling us that they are willing to train employees, and they truly need someone committed, willing to learn and work as part of a team," Mathis said.  

For Fyle's part, he already has an associate's degree, so he's hoping to finish up with the HVAC program at A-B Tech by the end of summer 2021. 

From planning events to selling real estate

For Kelly Denson, 41, the educational retraining period was even shorter. For a decade, Denson owned and operated All American Food Fight, an event planning company that has hosted the "Asheville Wing War" and "Battle of the Burger," among other food-based events that draw a strong mix of locals and tourists.

With the shutdown, 10 years of her work life went up in smoke. Never one to throw in the towel but realizing the pandemic would linger, Denson enrolled in a four-week real estate agent course. and has earned her license.

She is ready to hit the ground running.

"I've started a firm with my boyfriend, my partner, and we've started a whole new business," Denson said. "You just can't keep my entrepreneurial spirit down."

The firm, called Skylark Realty, will join a competitive field in the Asheville area, as home sales have remained strong and more and more people have joined the field. But Denson feels she has a leg up, in part because she was a mortgage broker before forming the events business, and partly because her boyfriend, Rich Brownstein, has been in the real estate game for six years and will be their broker-in-charge.

Denson has been eking it out on $132 a week in unemployment — $108 weekly after taxes, she points out — so she feels lucky to have a partner who's been able to keep his income stream. They've been working together already on marketing ideas, logos and other projects, and Brownstein says the collaboration works well.

"Kelly is a great person to bounce ideas off," Brownstein said. "She's really clever in a lot of ways I feel a lot of people aren't, so she's made me look at the business in a completely different way. I've learned so many things from her I wouldn’t have learned on my own."

While the industry is crowded with competitors, Brownstein said it's also a hot market. He mentioned a $175,000 manufactured home he listed recently that brought 22 showings.

"So many people are coming here buying second homes from New York, Chicago, and a large majority of them from Florida," he said.

Denson, he believes, has what it takes to make it, even though competition is stiff. The real estate class Denson took had 80 people in it.

"I think when it comes down to crunch time — not to be too dramatic — but it comes down to survival," he said.

Denson considers herself a survivor, but she didn't think her events planning career could make it through more months of partial shutdowns and then a sluggish return. Now, she has no regrets about making the leap.

"I think the sadness of losing something is finally starting to fade, and it is really exciting to think about doing something else," she said. "And, I think it will be successful because of how the market is right now."

Leaving the aviation industry for pediatric nursing

After 20 years in high-tech manufacturing and fabrication, including much of the last year at GE Aviation in Asheville, Aron Huss finds himself making a major career move, as well as a move out of North Carolina. Huss, 42, started at GE Aviation in July 2019, thinking it would be a long-time gig in a city he loved.

But then COVID devastated the travel industry and its suppliers. GE Aviation makes highly specialized jet engine parts, and the local operation took a double-whammy when the Boeing 737 Max was grounded last year because of computer software problems that had led to two crashes, followed by the pandemic this year.

Huss had been in the Carolinas for 15 years, but he moved to Asheville for the GE Aviation job.

"I thought, 'This was it for me,'" Huss aid. "I wanted a home, and I'm an avid mountain biker and whitewater kayaker, so I thought, 'Hey, I'm done moving.'"

But then on May 19, he got laid off.  Huss had worked his way up in manufacturing, often teaching himself new skills and attaining the title of "engineer," even though he does not have an engineering degree.

In short, he's a driven guy, as this sentence in his application to A-B Tech shows:

"My goal is to become a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner so that I can apply my personal strengths that got me to where I am in my current career to helping children in need," Huss said.

He intended to attend A-B Tech, but a residency issue left him facing higher tuition, so he opted for a return to Illinois, where he's now enrolled in Carl Sandburg Community College.

Huss has worked making helicopter parts for Chinook choppers, in the medical industry fabricating knee replacements and in the automotive industry creating racing brakes. He says he's always been a top producer with a keen eye to detail, and he liked a lot of aspects of manufacturing.

But he's also been disillusioned by top executives still pulling down bonuses during a pandemic that caused widespread job losses, plus he wants to do more fulfilling work.

"It’s been in the back of my mind for a few years now to change careers, and this was kind of the final nail in the coffin," Huss said of the layoff. "I've always been good with kids, and I've been interested in the medical field. And I want to do something that, no matter what else is going on, I can still feel good about doing great work."

Huss knows he'll likely have several years of schooling ahead of him, but he plans to return to the Carolinas once he has his associate's degree and can enroll in the nurse practitioner program. While he'll make a good salary as a nurse practitioner, Huss says money is far from his primary motivator.

"Money isn’t the driving factor for me, it's more the happiness and doing something I know is helping someone else," Huss said. "Being happy is the main thing."

Video business seemed secure

For several years, Michael Churchill, 23, was happy with his online business selling video games and electronics — and he was making pretty good money.

"Just in sales — before fees and shipping — my store made about $60,000 last year," Churchill said, adding that he's been in the business for five years and the money was way better than fast-food jobs. "Basically, you drive around on treasure hunts all day and then sell it. It was fun."

He learned about accounting and was his own boss, which he also enjoyed. He picked up the business through YouTube videos, and no formal education was necessary. Internet algorithms were working in his favor, and sales kept rising.

"Then COVID came this year, and that changed everything," Churchill said. "It completely stopped the supply change — no more garage sales, people don't want to meet face to face, no more thrift stores. Everything just stopped."

Initially, sales boomed when people were stuck in their homes. But they boomed too much, wiping out his inventory.

"I made like $10,000 in a month, but after that it was a dead halt," Churchill said. "Now the market is so inflated, things I was selling a few months ago are now worth 20, 30, 40 dollars more than what I was selling them for."

Churchill lives by himself in Candler, and he takes pride in his independence and wants to remain that way. While he previously viewed college — particularly a four-year school — as a money pit with limited return on investment, Churchill could also see his business model might not be sustainable long-term.

So he enrolled in A-B Tech's computer engineering technology program. The cost is relatively low, and he's confident he'll find a job, as computer technology only continues to grow and become more essential.

"With everything going on — politics, the pandemic — education is going to be our most important need," Churchill said. "And you'll need a sustainable field that will protect your future."

He's adamant that young people like him should study the job market and enroll in programs that will match employment needs.

"A lot of people my age probably feel this way," Churchill said. "We don’t know what the future is going to be. Some people can fall back on mom and daddy, but for others of us it’s sink or swim."

Churchill has lived in Asheville since age 7, but he's willing to move for a career. Texas has a special allure for him.

"I'm going to get as many (computer) certifications as I can and build that resumé up," Churchill said.

Computers, he said, should offer a career that's "future proof."

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